TGIF: 15 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media

Aug 24, 2014

It's been another wild week in Rhode Island politics and things will only get more intense on the way to the September 9th primary. So strap yourself in, send your tips and thoughts to me at idonnis (at) ripr (dot) org, and follow me on the twitters whenever you're lucid and awake. Here we go.

1. If you could be any one of the five major gubernatorial candidates at this stage of the campaign, you'd probably want to be Democrat Gina Raimondo. She gained ground in the latest WPRI-Providence Journal poll, has plenty of cash to spend, and got a thumb's up from PolitiFact on her claim of having helped create 1000 jobs (even if her Narragansett Beer -- albeit effective in conveying a feel-good message -- overreaches in suggesting that most of the brewer's jobs are in Rhode Island). Angel Taveras trails Raimondo in the WPRI-ProJo poll by just about one percent more than the 4.38 percent margin of error, and he appears to be hanging in despite his rivals' best-efforts to drown him in a sea of money. Still, it remains open to question whether Taveras will have enough money for a strong TV presence in the closing weeks of the campaign. What's more, it's not a good sign for a campaign when its field director leaves for a different job amid the final stretch, even if a new union coalition is backing the Providence mayor and Ani Haroian is a well-respected replacement as field director. The outlook may be better for Clay Pell; the poll shows the deep-pocketed candidate running neck and neck with Taveras, and Pell's worst-case scenario is probably a strong finish after a bad start to his first campaign. One big question on the way to September 9: if Taveras or Pell supporters believe their candidate is losing steam, do they change their allegiance on Election Day, and if so, to what effect?

2. With Brett Smiley dropping from the Providence mayoral race and throwing his support to Jorge Elorza, the rhetoric is getting hot and heavy in the Democratic primary battle for City Hall. Smiley points to a state Ethics Commission probe in defending his linkage of Michael Solomon with Buddy Cianci. Solomon responded by lambasting the Smiley-Elorza alliance as a "last-minute backroom political deal," (and FWIW, Smiley never got real traction among voters beyond the East Side). Yet in playing the role of attack dog during his joint news conference Friday with Elorza, Smiley also showed himself capable of dropping lines like this: "We have, unfortunately, someone who's right now in a position to win the Democratic primary, if we didn't work together, who is the king of a 'know a guy' running against the former king of the 'know a guy' system."

3. Part of the phenomenon of Buddy Cianci is how he transcends politics. There's still a potentially convincing case to be made against returning him to City Hall (for more on this, see #10). Yet it's striking how a segment of seemingly low-information voters can speak about Cianci with considerable insight (and appreciation); such was the case when a recent evening guest-host on WPRO asked his listeners if Cianci would drop out of the race for mayor. The ensuing responses (the unanimous view was, no, he won't drop out,), from people who didn't sound remotely like political junkies, were intuitive and on-point. So while the public's knowledge about Cianci's checkered past probably doesn't inoculate him (as some of his supporters claim), many Rhode Islanders still relate to him with the familiarity of a comfortable old shoe (others, with a very exaggerated view of the extent of local corruption, consider him a productive operator in a state overrun with dirty pols) .... Cianci, naturally, remains on-message in calling the November election a vote on the future, and he declines to specify whether he considers Solomon or Elorza the more formidable adversary (although the general belief is that Cianci is more concerned about Elorza, and Elorza touted that view this week on RIPR) .... Cianci say he's unruffled by the Democrats' talk about keeping him from office. "As far as I'm concerned, I don't what they're talking about or what their machinations are or what their dealings are," he says. "They should be discussing the issues of the future, and those are, how come our streets aren't as safe as we want them to be, why can't we create more jobs and stimulate our economy, and why aren't our kids learning better? Those are the kinds of things I'm focused on right now, and that's what I'm concentrating on. I can't control what they're doing or what deals they're making."  

4. The timing of the Ethics Commission probe of Solomon couldn't be worse for the Providence City Council president, but he still benefits from an early focus on his run and an array of far-flung endorsements. Consider, for example, the backing of liberal favorites like Senator Josh Miller (D-Cranston), former rep David Segal, AND the socially conservative majority leader of the state Senate Dominick Ruggerio. For his part, Segal -- who once clashed with David Cicilline's City Hall administration for moving away from progressive ideals -- maintains Solomon is the real thing. In a statement outlining his support, Segal wrote, "Time and time again Michael has shown that he will always put Providence families first. He has even stood up to Big Tobacco and Fortune 500 companies. Since becoming Council President, he has passed ordinances to remove harmful tobacco products that target our children from convenience stores shelves and passed a measure to divest our city's pension fund from fossil fuel companies. Some of you may not know this, but Michael and the city council created the city's Office of Sustainability to ensure the city was progressive and forward thinking when dealing with its energy consumption. Michael also has the strongest record on economic justice issues of any elected official in Providence. His 2009 ordinance protecting hotel workers during management changes was a landmark labor rights case, and he didn't shy away from a bold proposal to give voters the opportunity to raise the minimum wage for hundreds of working mothers before being preempted by the State House."

5. The move by a Chicago Realtors' group to spend $75,000 in support of Realtor Chris Wall's Democratic primary challenge to state Senator Gayle Goldin (D-Providence) has focused attention on this East Side legislative fight. Goldin is getting support from the International Association of Firefighters, Local 799, in Providence, which is sending a mailer depicting a bag of "real industry industry" and "private equity" cash near the Statehouse, with the question,"Is our state Senate for sale?" Wall calls himself the good government candidate in the race, pointing to voter anger over a perceived electoral hand-off to Goldin in 2012 from her predecessor, Rhoda Perry. Wall also says based on his research, independent expenditures of the type being made to support his run are used for "positive messages" on "real estate issues." Yet exactly how the money will be used is besides the point; $75,000 is more than two times the combined amount of Goldin and Wall's war chests, so it represents a massive cash infusion for a Rhode Island legislative race and could alter the outcome of the race.

6. Coming on the heels of Josh Barro's take on Rhode Island politics, the Providence Phoenix's Phil Eil asked a bunch of people what it means to be a Democrat around here: "The answer isn't simple."

7. There's growing talk out of Warwick about the challenge posed to Scott Avedisian by Republican challenger Stacia Petri. Although his stance as a moderate Republican has been seen as an impediment to moving up, Avedisian has proven popular since he first won election to the seat formerly held by Lincoln Chafee in 2000. The Warwick Beacon says Petri appears to have a shot at unseating Avedisian, in part due to a series of "very moderate" tax increases: "Even though most Warwick residents would say that Avedisian has done a respectable job as mayor, perhaps folks are thinking that 14 years in office is enough, that new blood could be just what the city needs." The primary math could also be a challenge, with more independents voting Democrat. Avedisian says he's responding by using the same basic plan from his last primary, in 2010: "Going door to door, hosting luncheons for seniors, and direct mail literature. The basic theme is one of progress and change: the construction of the Apponaug bypass, economic development near the airport and City Centre Warwick, the recreation of the Rhode Island Mall into a factory outlet mall. We are also highlighting new development: Car Max is redeveloping the old Building 19 site, Coastway Community Bank just moved their corporate headquarters to Warwick ... That along with 13 surpluses in the last 14 years, one of the highest bond ratings in the state, and the fact that three of our four pension plans are the only ones in the state ranked in Tier 1 are the issues that we have been stressing to potential voters."

8. Considering WJAR-TV's traditional ratings dominance in the Rhode Island market, it seem counter-intuitive that Virginia-based Media General is shedding Channel 10, rather than WPRI-TV (Channel 12), as part of its merger with Texas-based LIN Media. Yet although the deal was reported back in March as a takeover of LIN Media by Media General, the opposite appears closer to the truth, in part due to how LIN's president and CEO, Vincent Sadusky, will retain those titles as the head of the combined entity. Local fallout from the deal will take time to assess, but abrupt changes appear unlikely for now.

9. If Gina Raimondo and Ken Block win their respective Democratic and Republican primaries, will it depress Democratic turnout for the general election in November? Although the WPRI-ProJo poll shows Raimondo gaining Democratic voters, a swath of hardcore Dems aren't fond of her. So if this scenario plays out, and some Democrats take a walk, that could help Republican candidates like Catherine Taylor and Dawson Hodgson, and independent Ernest Almonte.

10. Bob Plain's Rhode Island Future blog reported this week how the National Education Association Rhode Island, the state's largest teachers' union, is supporting the Democrat challenging liberal Rep Maria Cimini (D-Providence) Sam Howard suspects it's an attempt to cozy up with Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who also backs Cimini's opponent.

11. Three-time gubernatorial candidate Myrth York says she remains undecided about whether she'll be part of a group opposing Buddy Cianci in the November mayoral election. "I seem to be the point person in terms of [fielding inquiries from] the media," she says, but, "I haven't done anything other than talk with a lot of people."

12. Renew RI, a new coalition, says a constitutional convention is needed due to the General Assembly's reluctance to enact reforms.

13. Senator Jack Reed is slated to appear at 9 am Sunday on CNN's State of the Union with Candy Crowley to discuss ISIS, the fundamentalist Islamic group responsible for the death of journalist James Foley.

14. Thanks to the crew at RI-PBS from inviting me on the panel this week for A Lively Experiment, along with Lou Pulner, Wendy Schiller, Maureen Moakley, and Dyana Koelsch (props to Lou for helping me out during two sudden brain cramps).

15. Football has supplanted the popularity of baseball among Americans, in significant part due to the growing length of game times. The national pastime took a well-deserved black eye during the steroids era, and with other pro sports, it can be hard to relate to athletes staggeringly high salaries. So thank you, Cumberland Little League coach Dave Belisle for reminding many people of why baseball is a beautiful game. No less a great than Ted Williams would have appreciated Belisle's stirring speech to his team. The Splendid Splinter, perhaps the greatest hitter in baseball history, knew that baseball is a game of failure; a .300 hitter is successful just 30 percent of the time. The majesty in baseball (as in life) nonetheless lies not in winning, but in trying -- and getting back up when you get knocked down.